Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Another Gold Medal Game

It occured to me this week that there are some old stories I've probably never told anyone except in passing because they aren't the kind of things that lend themselves naturally to conversations. On weeks that turn out to be extra boring, I will mine the archives of my life for stories of olde. This week I took in Canada's gold medal match at Jack Astor's in downtown Toronto and as I sat there watching the game, it reminded me of the last time I watched a gold medal hockey game...

It was February of 2010 and I was living with my friend James who I met through a friend from high school. Met is maybe the wrong word in this context. I meant to try and get his number and get in touch with him but I'm pretty slow at these kinds of things. Then one day I was sitting in one of my classes and this guy approached me completely at random. This was surprising because I met a grand total of five people in my first year at Queen's and none of them were in this class with me. I had a feeling it might be this mysterious "James" though so when he approached me I had already kind of figured out what was going on.

"Are you Ben?"

"Yeah, are you James?" I said extending my hand to shake. He was. I can't recall a smoother introduction to a total stranger.

So I was living with James and we lived in this apartment together. It was a two bedroom six pack with a massive living room. I sometimes dream about all the room we had in that apartment and our super awesome sound system. It was a bachelor bad through and through (right down to the ever present pile of dirty dishes in the sink and the smell of hockey equipment at the front door). The one part of a bachelor pad that we did not have though was television. I don't watch TV and James was watching most of his on DVD, so we elected not to subscribe. This was pretty good for most circumstances.

But then the Olympics came. This was the first olympics where they were able to stream every single  over the internet. Finally, I was able to watch biathlon whether Canada was good at it or not (and we happened to be ok at it in this particular year because we finished 6th or someting respectable in one of the events). I could watch all the short track speed skating. I could develop an obsession with luge! I could watch all the hockey games....


We did not have an HDTV in our bachelor pad (this was 2010 before those kinds of things were within the reach of university students with mildly dispoasble incomes) and so if we wanted to watch any of the games, we had to watch them on my laptop (13"). In the age of the internet, this did not seem appropriate to the monumental occasion that this hockey tournament was. This was Canada's chance to play their best players on home ice. We had to watch this in an environment worthy of the frenzy that Canadians feel about hockey.

The day before the first game of the tournament, I received a text message from Jason.
         "Hey, want to come watch the hockey game with me and possibly others?"
I responded and said I would join him. He said we would be going to "The Mansion".

"The Mansion" is a bar in Kingston that had a rotating cast of businesses before finally settling on its current occupant. It's one of those places that you would drive by every couple of months only to see that they were doing renos for a new tennant. It was this giant barn-like space complete with a faux silo attatched to the side. The whole place was gigantic. It's current success was probably due to the fact that it had been divided up into a number of different spaces. There was a music bar upstairs that was always hosting a show. There was a "club" downstairs although I don't know what it looks like because I never went there. The main floor (called "The Living Room") was much like a sportsbar. It had lots of TVs including two LCD projectors pointed at opposite walls. It was an excellent place for watching the game and they had a pretty awesome $10 food menu.

The first game led to a tradition for every game. Jason would send a text message, I would agree, and a small crowd would assemble around a table at The Mansion as we cheered on team Canada. We expressed hope up until our round-robin game against the USA when we were defeated. Everyone left the bar feeling dejected. What would happen now? The feeling of depression was amplified by the 70 other people at the bar who were also upset that we had just lost.

A bar amplifies every emotion you feel about sports. The combination of the alcohol and the crowd leads you to feel like you're almost at the game. Every goal gets a loud cheer. People clap at the TV when a good play is made, ignoring the fact that the TV can't transmit applause. It is quite the atmosphere. Some of my favourite hockey memories are actually from bars and not arenas. Something about the elitism in the Air Canada Centre makes it hard to get too excited in there. In a bar though no one cares about elitism. People just care about winning.

We followed Canada's road to recovery from the quarterfinals all the way through their victory over Russia and Slovakia taking them to the Gold Medal game. We headed to the Mansion an hour early in anticipation of this intense game. This was going to be good and we couldn't break our streak of watching all the games in the same place.

I don't know if you remember this game, but it was an emotional roller-coaster to watch. We scored, then they scored, then we scored. It looked like we were going to win and then with seconds left in the third period, they scored again to tie it up. Everyone was on the edge of their seats. Every shot was an opportunity to groan. Every break was an opportuity to chant at Ryan Miller (who seemed to hold our gold medal in his glove hand). By the time we went to overtime, people had nearly given up. The bartender sent a shot around to everyone in the bar to ease the pain. It was so hard to take in but you couldn't walk away without knowing the outcome.

When we scored in overtime, I thought the place was going to explode. The amount of energy that came out in that one moment, the amount of tension released, all the excitement of hours and days and years waiting for this moment were released in a single snap of number 87's stick. Everyone was screaming and jumping. I hugged almost everyone at the tables around us. I felt an enormous sense of pride that I got to participate in this moment with these strangers in this bar.

And as soon as it was over, we got to talk about how perfect it was. How perfect it was that everything ended in a moment. How perfect Jarome Iginla's pass (while falling down in the corner!) was. How amazing it was that the only goal Crosby scored for the whole tournament was the only one that mattered. How great it was that we had pulled it off over the United States. We must have talked for an hour. What a game.

I was sad to see it end. For those games in that bar, it felt like I had something in common with those people I had never met. I wish we could replicate that feeling again. It's too unique though. A once in a lifetime moment. A Paul Henderson moment. Something I'll tell kids in minor hockey about.

It was amazing though. Amazing that for a few hours in February we were all on the same side.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Post About Writing (How's that for meta)

"I have 3000 words to write before Tuesday"

The volume of that washes over me as soon as I say it out loud. I remember times last year when I was working and I had to wring every ounce of creative juice out of my brain in between 4 AM wake-ups and hour long subway rides. I got increasingly good at cranking things out at the last minute. With only an hour to write, I had to get it out. Being unemployed has changed this

As of Wednesday afternoon, I knew that I had to write a 1500 word sermon (that's ten minutes of speaking time) and a 1500 word philosophy paper. I put both of them off until this week because I knew that it would take a long time to get both out. I have no idea what I am going to write for the philosophy paper and sermon writing is something I'm still getting the hang of. I've gotten better at it after my first preaching class but I'm still finding my voice in it sound it doesn't sound like some kind of biblical mad lib. This particular week gives me lots of time because I have no class on Monday, and thus half the course homework that I normally get.

To make things even better, Amanda is out of the apartment for the weekend shopping for bridesmaids dresses with her bridal party and her mother. Don't get the impression that my wife is distracting. She is usually very helpful with letting me get stuff done. But the madness that consumes me when I'm writing for long periods of time is not something I want her to witness and I know this weekend will be bad. I might pull a Rumpelstiltskin and just explode in my chair from the amount of nervous energy that will build up in my brain.

Amanda leaves me to my own devices on Saturday afternoon. Given that I need some time to rehearse my sermon, I should really finish the writing on both assignments by Sunday night. I sit down and start thinking.

You could probably time my actions on the computer and come up with a fairly predictable pattern. I sit down to write. I write a paragraph. I stare at the paragraph for ten seconds. I open my web browser. I do that sequence that I talked about a few posts ago to check Facebook, Twitter, and email. I read whatever comes up. I feel guilty about procrastinating so I go back to Word. I read the last sentence I wrote. I think for a moment. I get up and go to the kitchen to get food or drink. I go back to the computer. I write another paragraph. I delete a sentence. I open the web browser....I typically don't write more than a paragraph without interruptions. If you thought I was lazy, this process would give you nothing but ammunition. "You write so inefficiently! You waste so much time!" You would be totally justified. I am a mess when I have to write. It is the worst.

Writing is romanticized sometimes. Pictures of people in french villas slaving over typewriters or sitting in coffee shops on laptops drinking espresso and being inspired. Neither of these pictures fit my writing experience. My apartment is no french villa, my desk no typewriter.

There are so many distractions in coffee shops that I get little in the way of solid work done in them. The only way for me to get anything done is to sit there and struggle through this procrastinatory process that would drive anyone else crazy were they to witness it.

By Saturday night I have 800 words written in the philosophy paper. I think I know what I'm writing about but the insecurity and set in and anything else I am writing is getting erased immediately. I am stuck. I open a game and play for what seems like a little bit. By the time I log off two hours later, I don't feel any more relaxed, I call it a night.

The part of writing that I'm good at is the editing. I am comfortable taking what I've written and tweaking it. Adding poetry and rhythm to break up long blocks of text. Inserting relevant stories. I can run through 1500 words in a matter of minutes and improve the quality by leaps and bounds. I am not so good at actually producing the raw materials to work with in the first place. If editing is like sculpting with rock, then first-draft writing for me is like mining the rock to be sculpted with a dull spoon while taking a smoke break every five minutes. I sometimes wish I could get a computer program that would generate a terrible first draft and I could just edit repeatedly. If they made a computer program to write first drafts, it wouldn't be long before they wouldn't need writers anymore though... Maybe I'll hold on to my dull spoon for now. I like being a person.

Sunday is much more productive. I finally catch the idea that I'm trying to cover in the philosophy paper. My word count goes up to 1300. Good enough for me. The important part is that the paper actually fits together now. There is a cohesive theme to the whole thing that I can whittle into something snappy. I put a title page on it and call it a job done. I have spent 13 hours working on that. I type at around 70 words a minute. You can do the math on how inefficient that is....Now is the time to start the sermon.

The sermon writing process is actually a bit more funny. Getting a good start is the thing that psyches me out the most. I write an opening paragraph and then imagine what it will sound like in my head. "not good enough!" I say. I delete it and start over. When I do get to writing, I get halfway through before I think the whole thing sounds cliche. "This is awful" I say and delete the whole thing. If I actually kept all the text I wrote, I'd probably have 6000 words. Four sermons for the price of one! The only problem is that the other three don't say anything. It takes a lot of writing before I know what I'm going to say.

Around 4 PM on Sunday, I finally figure out that I should write the sermon the same way I write blog posts. I already know what I want to say. I ought to just say it. I sit down and write the first draft in one sitting. 1100 words in twenty minutes. Not bad, but I wouldn't have been able to write it without the 8 hours of reading and drafting and outline and scribbles on a page.

Finding your voice is hard. I'm not talking about writing now, I'm just talking in general. Everybody has their thoughts and then everyone translates those thoughts into some kind of speech based on how we think people will respond. Sometimes this is good (see Louis CK for a hilarious take on this), but sometimes people really need to hear what you have to say without a filter. Sometimes that's the only way to get what's meaningful out of your head. People need to hear your voice and that means ignoring the 900 voices in your head that point out the problems with what you say.

The more I write, the more I find that voice comes out and when it does I sure like what it says. That makes sense since I agree with it right?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014


When I was a kid my mom used to have to fight with me to get me to buy new clothes. When we arrived at the store, my goal was to find something that I liked and buy as many as possible. For a long time, I could just tell her my size and she would go to old navy and come home with a bag of clothes that I would wear for the next couple of months or years or whatever.

Recently I have started caring more about what I wear. Somewhere along the way I decided I like certain kinds of things. Sometimes it is because it is comfortable. Sometimes it is practical. I might like the way it looks. I have this North Face sweater I bought two years ago that's this vibrant shade of blue and I'm pretty sure I would wear it all the time because it is both comfortable, practical, and I love the way it looks.

Sometimes I get a bit adventurous. Maybe that's too strong a word. Sometimes I get out of my comfort zone a little bit. Last year I bough some pants that weren't jeans and I wore them to school. The entire time I was wearing them I felt like people would know exactly what I was doing. I spent the whole day in fear of someone pointing out that I was wearing different pants. I just wanted the whole thing to be natural and subtle.

I got really adventurous this year. For my birthday I asked for a pair of Hunter rain boots. I mention that they are adventurous because though they are ubiquitous in Toronto, guys don't wear them very often and I'm not really one to step outside of the norm. I am usually pretty boring. They looked great, were super practical and comfy though so they went on the list I sent to Amanda. I felt comfortable sharing this with her...Then she forwarded the list to her mom. In her defense, I don't think I made it clear just how uncomfortable I was about asking for them, but the request went to the in-laws. A few days later, Amanda's mom is calling asking what "Hunters" are and where she might get them. I wanted to pack up a suitcase and move to Arkansas. I felt horridly embarrassed for no good reason other than that someone might know that these were a thing I wanted.

They arrived in August and I started wearing them in the fall. I mostly kept them for trips around the city and errands. The thought of walking around school in them made me nervous. It would look kind of funny and they're rather loud. That sounds like it might attract attention and I don't want that at all. Then winter came and that stopped making sense. It is slushy and wet outside. Wearing my shoes would be a quick way to frostbite.

Whenever I wear them around people I know for the first time, there's usually a complement (I don't know whether to call it a complement or a comment). I usually try to say "thanks" if I'm not dying from embarrassment at that time. After that, people usually just accept that they are things that I wear and stop commenting. I return to being invisible. Things are good.

Then this week happened.

I had a class on Thursday. It was snowing outside. Automatically that means I am wearing Hunters to school. I walk around in the snow too much to do anything else. I arrive in class and note that chairs are arranged in a semi circle. I take a seat and unload my things. The professor introduces himself and then asks us to go around the circle and introduce ourselves by giving our name and an interesting fact about ourselves. I settle on my experience with camp. It seems interesting enough to generate follow-up questions but not very easy to make fun of.

"I'm Ben, I go to Grace Church Toronto, and when I'm not in school I work at a camp north of Kingston" I say, almost breathlessly. The prof nods at me.

"Nice boots. Are those Hunters? They are."

I want to crawl under my desk. This is what I imagine happening every time I leave the house with these on. I imagine people noting that I am wearing them and pointing this fact out. I would like to believe that this was an irrational fear, but here it is happening before my very eyes.

"They're much needed for the weather" I stammer, trying to make myself appear practical. I hope no one notices that my face has turned beet red.  The prof moves on to the next person and after a few minutes I have regained my composure. Surely this will be the last time I feel awkward about this. Next time I'll just say something positive and continue like a normal conversation. My chance comes soon. Once we get to our next break, the girl next to me turns and notes

"Those are nice boots".

"Thanks" I mumble walking away. Nope, still feels awkward. Maybe that will be the last time though. Surely no one else will care now.

Tuesday night, I sit down to another class. There are about six of us in the room. The professor walks in and out a few times. He's a charismatic and friendly guy but usually doesn't say much. He walks out to grab some handouts, and then on the way back in...

"I like those wellington boots!" he says. The turning red things happens again. There is a pause that seems to stretch onward into eternity. 

"Op, now everybody take a look" someone says from across the room. I actually cannot believe that this is happening. This is what the irrational part of my brain imagined when I received these on my birthday. This is what I thought might happen before reminding myself that this was all kind of silly. 
I mutter something about the weather before putting my head down and pretending to read.

People always say "Oh, you're just being ridiculous". This week I learned that sometimes life is ridiculous.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

About Monday Night

The whistle blows and I run back to the stage that we call a bench. A quick hop and I'm up and out of the way. This gives me a chance to look over my wounds. There's a sting in my right finger. I can't feeling anything past my first knuckle and it looks like it might change into all the colours of the rainbow before tomorrow. The sting on the back of my thigh tells me that my finger isn't the only thing doing that. My heart is pounding in my chest and I sit up straight like Matt told me to filling my lungs with air so I can get back out there and do it again. That was the first shift. There will probably be six others. I hope they aren't as rough. Did I mention we're playing floor hockey?

In Canada, to play hockey is to be quintessentially Canadian. It's actually one of the few things that you can put on a list of "Canadian" things. Other items include complaining about the weather, going to Tim's, and apologizing for things without really thinking. Floor hockey is the sad cousin of ice hockey. It's what you do when you don't have a rink or don't have equipment but still have this irresistible desire to take a slap shot and experience that euphoric rush that occurs when the puck hits the back of the net and causes it to ripple everywhere. It's like turning the heat up in the middle of February and walking around barefoot in shorts and a t-shirt so you can get a little taste of summer.

It's supposed to be that, but I think someone forgot to tell everyone at my school this because it gets pretty serious. There are eight teams in our floor hockey. Those eight teams are headed by sixteen captains who double as referees. They build their teams with the help of a draft. If the captains don't know some of the players they set up a prospects game. Once the teams are selected, a schedule is made and spectators appear at each game. Basic statistics are kept so at the end of week three, you can tell that you are the 8th best shot blocker in the league (a small source of pride for me now). Since stats are kept, there is a fantasy league that uses students as its subjects.

The players take it seriously too. Though it's a non-contact league and you're not supposed to hit other players, bruises are a common occurrence. It's usually because of a follow through on a slap shot. The fact that this kind of injury happens regularly should tell you that guys are willing to sacrifice their right shin if it means the game is one goal closer.

On this particular night, we are entering the second half of the season. The first half is to sort out the pecking order and figure out what to do with your team. Without a lot of information, you're never quite sure who sits where. Now that we have played every team (with one exception). We know what to expect. Green, who we are playing tonight, is a team we have beaten before but it was a close game and both teams know it. This gives me a sense of drive as I hop off the bench at the next change. I want this game.

I think I heard that in a sports movie once. It's a line I repeat to myself to make up for my lack of stick handling skill. Though I am getting better, the skill level in our league is high and I am often frustrated by how good others are. I play defense, and so my job involves standing at the half-line and trying to get open for a shot until someone for the other team clears the puck. When that happens I am supposed to turn around and rush into the corner, hoping the other team's player isn't too much bigger than me because I want the ball more than he does and if it comes to contact, I'm probably going down on the floor. If I get the ball, the next ten seconds are a frantic rush to figure out where my teammates are and get the ball to them. Sometimes I run the ball up the side of the court and try to work my way around the other team. Sometimes I just slap my stick wildly in hopes that it gets out of our end. No matter what happens, I am tired when it is over and I return to the line to repeat the cycle until the next line change.

I did not know most of the guys on my team before the season started. I knew one of the two captains and two other guys, but most of them are from the university/college side of our school. Now that we've had eight games together though I feel like I know them. This is the power of sports taken seriously. By working together, we develop a rapport with each other and the tension that was present in that first preseason game (the one where I was giving the ball away in front of our own net) has subsided and been replace by encouraging words and fist pounds. I feel like I'm part of a team now.

When it's over, I lick my wounds in the locker room and take a second glance at my hand. It doesn't look as bad as I initially thought. We won the game so really, a few bruises are worth it. I look at my calendar to the next game on our schedule. I will be looking forward to another chance to do it again. Maybe I'll even score this time.